Yet Another Death of a “Scandal”

What Mark earlier called the “scandal that never was” — the U.S.’s accusation that the UN Development Program (UNDP) had illegally funneled millions of dollars in cash to the North Korean government — can finally perhaps be put to bed. Already, a Senate investigative committee, as well as the UN’s own auditing board, has exposed this charge as largely groundless, and now, the just-released report of an independent panel chaired by former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, confirms the extent to which this issue has been blown out of promotion by scandalmongers and UN-bashers.

The UNDP’s operations with North Korea are difficult, but they are also vital to millions of North Koreans who benefit from the organization’s services. Everywhere UNDP works, it must work with and under the rules of the host country’s government. In North Korea’s case, this entailed UNDP adopting sub-optimal policies on local staffing, the use of hard currency (as distinct from cash), and project oversight — policies that had long been accepted by the U.S. government and are still being practiced by embassies and NGOs in the country. Nonetheless, when UNDP came under attack in March of 2007 for having operated under the policies that North Korea required, and recognizing the importance of ensuring that its funds were not being mismanaged, UNDP suspended its operations in North Korea.

Some of the accusations then leveled against UNDP came from a former employee who later claimed that he was being punished for having “blown the whistle” on the organization’s supposedly irregular policies. The new Nemeth report, however, clarifies how well-established UNDP’s operating procedures were in North Korea among U.S., NGO, and UN agencies and finds no UNDP complicity in North Korea’s attempts to avoid sanctions. It also casts serious doubts on the credibility of the purported “whistleblower” who broke these accusations.

Meanwhile, and even though this particular individual’s case did not prove to be substantiated, UNDP strengthened its whistleblower protection policy and beefed up accountability systems worldwide. As for whether or not UNDP should resume its programs helping the citizens of North Korea, that will be up to Member States to decide, when they discuss the Nemeth report later this month.